By Christiane Howe
Although Bob “Howie” Howe did not die during combat, he did die still fighting the war. This is my tribute to him. I love you and miss you, honey, each and every day. My only solace is that you are no longer fighting and you are at peace and with the Lord you so faithfully served.
Bob Howe grew up in Vernon, VT. He graduated B.U.H.S. class of 1967. By 1968, he was tired of waiting for his draft number to come up and decided to gamble a little and get on with his life and got married. While in Vietnam, Bob was one of our American heroes; while fighting a war, he received a “Dear John” letter, therefore, not only did he battle the Viet Cong, at the same time, he also battled a broken heart. I remember him telling me that he wanted to wander off and never be heard of again. Imagine the pain.
Fourteen days later, as he put it, “I received greetings from the U.S. Army.” Bob was off to Fort Dix for basic training. From there, it was on to Advanced Infantry training in California where he said he “learned to disarm (not fix) everything from booby traps to mines.” He learned how to escape and evade and spent time in a mock prisoner of war camp that looked authentic and real. He said, “It was a place where soldiers had their feet tied and were hung upside down. They put guys in barrels. They showed us what to expect if we were captured. It was scary stuff and what I learned,” said Bob, “was that there just was no way I was going to get captured. The instructors did their jobs. They had my complete attention.”
January 1969 found Bob and his unit entering the Central Highlands of Vietnam during the TET Offensive. Bob was a radio telephone operator, known as a RTO, part of a group who were dropped into the jungle and given an extrication point on the map, for pick up 5 or 6 days later. He knew that missing that pick up spot likely meant a stay in the Hanoi Hiltons he had studied his training.
Bob said, “We were to follow old trails, find old camps, collect anything we could that could be sent back to the lab to help determine where the North Vietnamese and the Viet Cong were hiding and where they might be headed next.” Later, Bob became an experienced tunnel rat. He would go deep into the elaborate underground tunnel system dug under the jungle floor. He would enter the tunnel with a 45 pistol in one hand, the cigarette butt that was placed purposely on the back of his ear was now being used as an earplug; he held a flashlight in his other hand. Bob told me he thought the tunnels began construction at the beginning of the war sometime in the late 1950s.
“Inside,” he said, “I would find bloody bandages, food, animals and from this information we gleaned the movements and direction of the enemy so that we could get ahead of them.” This information was sent back to Intelligence to help them get one step ahead of the enemy.
Sometimes the platoon would chase the enemy down into these holes, then Bob would throw a smoke bomb inside and cover the top with a poncho to see if an exit could be nearby.
Bob told of how the tunnels were booby trapped with bamboo slivers so that if you stepped on one, it would hurt. However, you would really hurt yourself pulling it out and the pain was worse coming out. Or the slivers were treated with poisons designed to give them an infection. It was pretty scary stuff and Bob said that the more he went into the tunnels the more he gained experience, hence getting very good at it. Clearing out the tunnels was a horribly terrifying thing to do. You had to be at the ready at all times; it was an intense job to say the least. Sometimes they were different sizes. One tunnel Bob had to clear had 13 rooms. Most of the time, Bob was in the tunnels alone, a frightening place to be. However, after he cleared them, he rigged them with C4 plastic explosives and debt cord and would blow the whole tunnel system up. There were these, as Bob called them, blind crickets that hung on the ceiling that would drop on his hands and head and bite him as he was trying to quickly get out of there. (I have to tell of the night terrors Bob would have reliving his times in the tunnels. He may have blown the tunnels up while he was in Vietnam, but he was never able to rid them from his mind. At night, while trying to sleep, he would slap at them, toss, and turn; his legs were never still. The blind crickets never stopped biting him or crawling on him, until he went home to the Lord, finally they stopped.)
Later in the year, his unit ran into a big element: They engaged and called for backup. Bob remembered, “There was nothing to help us, not gun ships, no air cover. The only guys who could assist us were behind us. We got down, called in the rounds, gave the coordinates, and the shells came screaming in. It was like having sports cars over your head. The Vietnamese were running close to us and the next shell hit nearby. It was full artillery, big battery shells on top of us. I heard one whistle way back behind me and the hair on the back of my neck stood straight up. Thirty-three of us had settled in when it started, in the morning, just seven of us were left. I had only scratches and to this day, I don’t understand why.” (He never stopped hearing the screaming of the shells; they were constantly in his nightmares.)
Robert served in Vietnam in 1969 in Pleiku, which was his home base and his fire base was in the LZ Saint George. He enlisted (even though he had a draft number, he had enlisted first) into the United States Army and was in the Delta Company 1st Battalion, 14th Infantry Regiment known as the “Golden Dragons” and was assigned to the 4th Infantry Division. Robert served as a Tunnel Rat and a Radio Telephone Operator. He served his country as a proud soldier and received an honorable discharge. His family, friends, and I want to thank him for all he has done for us and his country. We are proud to say you are our father, grandfather, brother, friend, and husband.
Robert died August 13, 2013, from complications of Agent Orange. He never felt like himself again after coming home. He and other soldiers coming for the first time thinking, “We are home,” got spit at, called names (One that really, really bothered him was the term, “baby killer.”). He would often say to me, “I never killed a baby.” I would tell him, “Everyone knows that, Robert.” It was something that stuck with him and made him very, very sad at times, thinking of the way all his brothers and sisters in arms were treated when they came home. I personally think that kind of thing did a lot of damage to our heroes. They were just coming home and thinking they are finally safe and then thinking the very people they were fighting for now were treating them like dirt. How awful, and shame on those that played any role in that.
Welcome home to all the men and women who served in Vietnam and all wars, and thank you for your service.